By Katie Fallon
While summer may recall happy times for many, one local family will soon mark a tragic one-year anniversary.
On July 25 of last year, Sandy Springs resident Jennifer Ewing was murdered on the Silver Comet Trail while taking her regular, 50-mile bicycle ride from the trail’s Smyrna outpost. That evening, Ewing was reported missing by her husband Jim after she failed to return home from her ride. The following morning, her body was found about 40 feet from the trail at mile marker 17 in Paulding County.
At the time of Ewing’s murder, PATH Foundation executive director Ed McBrayer said the crime was the first major incident experienced on the trail. He said the trail is used by a couple million visitors every year.
McBrayer said while use of the trail went down slightly in the few weeks immediately following the shock of Ewing’s death, usage today has remained steady and seems to be up since last year, although he said there are no concrete numbers to be sure.
“I don’t think there have been any significant changes,” McBrayer said. “Except people thinking twice about going in pairs.”
McBrayer said that it is not economically feasible to install lighting or emergency call boxes along the 60-mile trail. He said as tragic as Mrs. Ewing’s death was, he believes it to be an isolated incident that could have happened anywhere.
If anything, McBrayer said Ewing’s murder may have made trail enthusiasts more aware of personal safety precautions like carrying a cell phone or working out with a friend. The PATH Foundation has even added the suggestion of taking a “buddy” to the trail on signs at every outpost.
“We are encouraging people to at least consider taking buddies,” McBrayer said. “Most people say they feel safe.”
In the time since the murder, McBrayer said the publicity from the case has had one particular effect on the Silver Comet Trail.
“Unfortunately, this was a lot of people’s way of finding out that the trail even existed,” he said.
Funded and managed by the PATH Foundation, the Silver Comet Trail stretches through Cobb, Paulding and Polk counties all the way to the Alabama state line. Because the paved trail is so expansive, it is not lit and is only open from dawn to dusk.
The discovery of Ewing’s body on July 26, 2006, was followed almost immediately by news that Paulding County authorities had a local, convicted sex offender in custody as a “person of interest.” Michael William Ledford, then 43, had already served a 10-year prison term for rape in Paulding when he officially became a suspect in the case.
In October of last year, Ledford was indicted on a total of 10 charges of murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, aggravated sodomy and kidnapping with bodily injury.
Ewing was survived by her husband Jim, children Jim Jr., George and Margaret and several immediate family members from Macon. Her memorial service was held at Buckhead Church’s former Sandy Springs location on Roswell Road and was attended by thousands of mourners, including Gov. Sonny Perdue. Ewing’s husband was, and still is, the director of Recruitment and Existing Industry for the state’s Department of Economic Development.
The Ewing family declined an interview request for this article.
Ledford’s death penalty trial, in which he is being defended by Jimmy Berry and Tom West, is not expected to begin anytime soon. Motion hearings for the more than 100 motions that have been filed began last month. The case is being held before Paulding Superior Court Judge James Osborne.
Paulding County District Attorney Drew Lane, however, said the case is proceeding smoothly.
“We have made fairly good progress in hearing the numerous motions,” Lane said. “A majority have been ruled on.”
One motion that Judge Osborne has not heard yet is the defense’s motion for a change of venue. West and Berry have asked that the trial be moved to Brunswick in the wake of the national media attention the case has received.
Ledford’s case is currently the only death penalty case being handled by the Paulding District Attorney’s Office. It is only the second death penalty case Lane’s office had handled since he took office in March, 2005.